BOBBY HARRISON: Charter schools train slowed by bipartisan concerns

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – If charter school legislation is any indication, Republicans – as a majority party in the Mississippi House and Senate for the first time since the 1800s – will think for themselves much more than they did as members of the minority.
With Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, all Republicans, supporting charter schools, it was assumed the proposal would breeze through the Legislature.
But it has not.
Charter schools are public schools and vary in their format. Generally speaking though, charter schools are exempt from following many of the rules and regulations of traditional public schools. They enter into a charter with the state to meet certain standards, and their students enter into a contract with the school.
If the charters are not met, theoretically the schools can be closed.
Many see charters as another choice for parents in low-performing districts, while others see them as a choice parents should have regardless of how well schools are performing where they live. Still others see charter schools as a drain on public education – siphoning money and the best students from traditional public schools.
At any rate, it appears charter schools were on the fast track this session. But that is no longer the case.
The charter school train has not been derailed, but it has been slowed.
The original Senate bill was amended with strong bipartisan support even before it left the Education Committee to remove a virtual charter school component.
And the charter school legislation in the House had to be amended to take out virtual charter schools and to restrict where charter schools can be located before House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, could get the proposal out of his committee. Not only Democrats on the committee, but Republicans were pushing the changes.
It should be noted that not only education advocacy groups, such as the Parents Campaign, but also members of the business community through the Mississippi Economic Council are pushing many of those changes being made to the legislation.
The plain-spoken Moore concedes additional amendments will have to be made on the House floor in order to get the proposal passed. It is not certain now when the bill would be taken up. The original goal, according to many, was to pass it last week, but that was before members started expressing concerns.
Seldom, especially during the tenure of former Gov. Haley Barbour, who was term-limited out of office this past January, did Republican legislators stray too far from the party line.
And during the opening weeks of the 2012 session, it seemed as if that practice would continue. Both the House and the Senate passed only a handful of bills during the opening weeks.
Most of that legislation was controversial, such as the rules change limiting the ability of rank-and-file members to amend budget bills, and on most of those proposals the Republicans members voted as a bloc.
But that has changed with the charter school legislation. Republicans in the Senate and House forced changes in the charter school legislation in their respective Education committees and some Republicans in the House have indicated they would vote against the charter school bill on the floor unless additional changes are made.
It is important to remember that votes on the floor are much different from votes in committee. Committee votes are not recorded. They often are voice votes or a show of hands.
Votes on the floor are recorded and can be used by groups to reward or punish members. A recorded vote against the wishes of the leadership on important legislation is not to be taken lightly.
Perhaps, charter school legislation is atypical. But it appears at least on some issues, especially those involving public education, there might be more independent thought in the Legislature than some people thought there would be.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.